Pa. coronavirus recovery: State makes $50M in hazard pay grants available for frontline workers

A state effort will set aside $50 million in hazard pay grants for frontline employees earning less than $20 an hour.

 Mary Kate Ranii, 25, of Shaler, Pennsylvania,  shops at the East End Food Co-op, where she says cashiers are especially helpful for customers looking to make careful reductions in personal spending and waste. (Megan Harris/WESA)

Mary Kate Ranii, 25, of Shaler, Pennsylvania, shops at the East End Food Co-op, where she says cashiers are especially helpful for customers looking to make careful reductions in personal spending and waste. (Megan Harris/WESA)

Updated at 5:30 p.m.

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

As of Thursday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recorded a total of 98,446 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 6,973 deaths.

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Philadelphia reported 157 new cases on Thursday for a total of 28,024. The city reported 18 new deaths for a total of 1,664.

Pa. makes $50 million in hazard pay grants available for frontline workers

A state effort will set aside $50 million in hazard pay grants for frontline employees earning less than $20 an hour. The effort would give workers up to an additional $3 an hour.

The hazard pay will cover a span of 10 weeks for a maximum of $1,200 for full-time employees, though part-timers can also benefit from the added pay.

The catch? Employees can’t apply for the aid directly.

Instead, their employers have to submit an application between July 16 and July 31.

“It’s a very short time frame but we need to get this money on the street as quickly as we possibly can,” said Carol Kilko, Deputy Secretary for Business Financing at the Department of Community and Economic Development.

The funds come from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding and will apply from August 16 to October 24.

Hospitals, nursing homes, food manufacturing, food retail, transit, and janitorial services are among the list of eligible Pennsylvania industries that can apply for up to $3 million in grants.

Businesses, health care nonprofits and public transportation agencies can also apply, as can certified economic development organizations.

Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged some essential businesses had already been offering some form of hazard pay during the first months of shutdowns, but he added “some of the companies that have done this have actually suspended the program.”

“We want to make sure employees who deserve this, who served on the front lines, who’ve put themselves at risk, and in some cases have taken on extra expenses, get some recompense for that,” said Wolf.

Kilko said the administration considered making employees apply for the hazard pay directly but found up to 46,000 people could benefit from the program.

“The infrastructure that we had in place, we really didn’t think that we would be able to support that and get the money out in a timely fashion.”

If an employer doesn’t apply for funds, said Kilko, “then there’s no extra money that will be going to that employee.”

Pa. says school staff and students must wear masks

Pennsylvania’s mandatory face-covering rule does apply to students in schools, the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Wednesday.

That means students and staff in all Pennsylvania schools must wear a mask or other form of approved face-covering while attending in-person classes.

“I understand that this is going to be challenging,” said Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “But it is very, very important.”

The clarification came alongside new state guidance for districts to consider as they attempt to reopen schools this fall. The guidance is wide-ranging and includes recommendations to:

— Face all desks forward and space them at least six feet apart;

— Hold classes in gyms, auditoriums, or outdoors;

— Serve all meals in classrooms;

— Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces;

— Open windows when possible.

Each school district, charter school, and private school must submit a reopening plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. So far, the department has received roughly 125 plans from across the state, far fewer than the eventual total.

Shortly after the release of new guidance, the state’s largest teachers’ union sent a letter to state leaders urging them to plan for all-virtual school — signaling skepticism that schools could safely return to in-person learning.

“It is extremely important for Pennsylvania’s public schools to plan for the distinct possibility that further increases in COVID-19 cases will make it impossible to safely reopen Pennsylvania’s schools for in-person instruction,” wrote Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

WHYY’s Avi Wolfman-Arent contributed reporting.

Philadelphians can get those gains… with some precautions

Gyms and fitness centers in the city can reopen Monday, announced Health Commissioner Tom Farley Thursday. Masks and 6-foot social distancing are required, as is compliance with capacity limits. Group classes are limited to 10 people.

Pop-up inspections can be expected, according to Farley, who said the onus of keeping these facilities open will be on gym owners.

“When people are doing vigorous aerobic exercise it’s very uncomfortable to wear a mask,” Farley admitted. “So the gym-users are not going to want to wear masks and the gym-owners may not want to enforce that.”

Still, Farley emphasized these facilities could operate in a safe way if they enforced masking.

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Farley warned if upon inspection the city learned a gym wasn’t abiding by the rules, then the city would close the gym. Likewise, if through contact tracing it’s learned that there were COVID-19 cases coming from a gym, Farley said the gym would be closed.

“It’s an attempt to meet the interest in exercise, which is good for health, while also being very careful about infection control in the process,” said Farley of the opportunity.

He discouraged people who had a hard time exercising with a mask on from going to the gym.

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Bucks County buying face shields for all students

As school districts across Pennsylvania weigh if and how in-person learning will resume, Bucks County Commissioners announced Thursday they’re purchasing face shields for all of their public and private school students.

“We know there’s been a lot of worry about wearing masks and for people who can’t wear masks, but virtually everybody can wear the shield,” said commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia. “More importantly. It allowed the teachers and their peers, everybody could see each other’s mouths when they’re speaking and it allows the students to see the teachers’ mouths as well.”

Ellis-Marseglia said she was hopeful the shields would be a “comfort step” as residents get “adjusted to the idea of going back to school.”

More testing delays. This time in Bucks County.

Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker described a delay in COVID-19 test results Wednesday. The 7-10 day wait for results from lab vendor Quest Diagnostics is similar to what Montgomery County described Wednesday, as a result of increased testing in states experiencing spikes in new cases.

“We’ve had some cases that took so long to get their results back from Quest that they were already uninfectious and clearing them from isolation by the time they got the results,” said Damsker. “So they did their entire isolation waiting for their result to come back.”

Damsker said that kind of delay “is not happening every day, all the time,” but it is a concern. He reported better turnaround time with LabCorp tests and added that rapid testing was available in a handful of hospitals for critically ill patients in emergency rooms.

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